Lost in Translation: Recent Veterans and Joblessness

A "Hiring Our Heroes" job fair in New York City on March 27, 2014. (Daniel Mescon/NY City Lens)

A “Hiring Our Heroes” job fair in New York City on March 27, 2014. (Daniel Mescon/NY City Lens)

It has been a little less than a month since Akeem Phipps got out of the military. The 27-year-old, who lives in Far Rockaway, Queens, joined the Army in 2005, served at Fort Bliss in Texas, then spent 14 months in Mosul, Iraq recovering and fixing broken down tanks and trucks. Back in the United States, he worked as an Army recruiter in Los Angeles and New York, moving east in 2011.

Now out of the service, Phipps is using his Post-9/11 GI Bill to attend the Institute of Audio Research near Union Square. He hopes to eventually work as an audio engineer and music producer, or as a radio host. But when Phipps graduates in October, federal jobs data suggest he may find it more difficult than some to find work.

Phipps falls into a category referred to by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as “Gulf War-era II veterans,” meaning he served on active duty since September 2001. The bureau reports that last year, the average unemployment rate among this group was 9 percent, compared to 7.2 percent for non-veterans. Unemployment in Phipps’ age group of 25 to 34-year-olds was even higher, at 9.5 percent.

A less-than-robust economy could be partly to blame for this elevated level of joblessness, but Phipps and others who work to assist veterans say one key factor is a poor translation of soldiers’ military tasks to their resumes.

“Being able to civilianize your experiences and abilities can be difficult,” said Lauren Augustine, a legislative associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Phipps was one of about 450 veterans, military spouses and others who attended a “Hiring Our Heroes” job fair last week – hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation – at the cavernous 69th Regiment Armory in Kips Bay. Companies and organizations ranging from Toyota and Home Depot to the City University of New York and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum showed up to recruit workers.

Leo Cruz, a 33-year-old veteran who helps produce job fairs for the “Hiring Our Heroes” program, said the poor economy hurt job prospects for newly-discharged soldiers around the time of the recession. But he also said some in the “Gulf War-era II” group have had trouble translating military skills to civilian-speak. In addition, Cruz said soldiers sometimes do not list skills – such as being an effective leader – on their resumes because they believe everyone possesses strong leadership qualities.

“For most folks coming out of the military, they assume, ‘Well, if I know this, it’s basic knowledge,’” he said.

Sometimes, veterans fall on the opposite end of the spectrum and clutter their resumes with everything they’ve done, according to Davy Leghorn, assistant director of the American Legion Veterans Employment & Education Commission. Leghorn said he personally doesn’t see much military jargon on resumes anymore, but he said soldiers should, for example, highlight their ability to deal with stress and irregular schedules rather than mention the number of deployments they’ve had.

He said resume workshops can help veterans, as can the government’s Transition Assistance Program, which teaches service members and their spouses about searching for jobs, current labor market conditions and interviewing. A variety of military skills translators are also available on the Internet.

But many attendees of last week’s job fair mentioned that veterans are assets to civilian employers. Albert Chow, a 29-year-old former Marine and current army reservist based in Bayside, Queens, said they’re “can-do” people.

“It’s not about whether I can not do it, or making up excuses where I won’t, or I can not do it; it’s, ‘We will do it.’ It’s, ‘How will you want us to do it,’” he said.

Nicholas McWhite, a 35-year-old former Army chemical operations specialist who is currently unemployed, said veterans bring leadership, integrity and loyalty to the workplace.

“They bring skills, multiple skills from all aspects,” he said, “because when you go in the military, especially the Army, you go in with one job, but you get out knowing about five or six different jobs.”

Akeem Phipps hopes to parlay those versatile skills into a job. At the job fair he got a lucky break and met an employee of SiriusXM Radio, where he recently applied for an internship. It turned out the man was the supervisor of those who review resumes. Should he get the position, Phipps will bring the flexibility that he learned as a soldier to work with him every day.

“There’s no task or anything that you couldn’t show them or teach them,” Phipps said of veterans. “They don’t necessarily have to have the background in it, but they’ll figure out how to do it if you just show them.”